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We all agree that a well-informed public leads to a more open, just and civic-minded society. Yet today it seems every major and minor news network has a Sunday talk show or weekly roundtable dedicated to “educating” the American public about politics. In addition, with the growth of the Internet, thousands of Web sites exist with information on politics and government. The irony is that while the quantity of places we can go for political information continues to increase, the quality of that information has not.
Recent voter turnout shows an American public with a general apathy toward government and the political process. If we continue to focus on innuendo instead of insight, we threaten to create even more public apathy. For everything a quick sound bite delivers in sharpness, it often loses the same in substance when the message reaches the public.
While it may be easy to fault the media for the lack of public confidence in America’s political system, policymakers are also partly to blame.
Because increased political partisanship has led to an adversarial relationship between policymakers, it has created a disconnect with the media who cover them. It is only natural for the media to present the news in this “crossfire” approach when that is all it hears from politicians on a daily basis. Thus, instead of creating a well-informed society, policymakers, and the media can inadvertently work together to give the appearance that complicated issuesare black or white, with no in-between. We all know this is not true.
For television, and the American media generally, the election of 2000 will be the first real taste of things to come, the beginning of the end of an era if not the end itself. Whispers of the “information revolution” could be heard in 1994, mostly in the accents of the Right, but in 2000, the Internet’s campaign presence will be sounded in shouts and with cymbals. Campaigning via Websites and the use of e-mail, already routine, will edge toward dominance. In addition, a significant fraction of the public will be getting its politics from the Internet: the Pew Research Center found that in 1995, only 4 percent of adults went on-line for news at least once a week; by 1998, the figure had reached 20 percent, and rising. Today, however, television, which displaced the press and radio (and movies, for that matter), is itself substantially being shouldered aside. It is not even surprising that, according to the Pew Research Center, while 60 percent of adults “regularly” watched TV news in 1993, that figure dropped to 38 percent in 1998. Like the press and like radio, television will retain much of its power; its quality of its influence may even rise; what is certain, however, is that it will have to change.
If we are lucky, that change will help Americans reclaim some of democracy’s old charm. Our communities have been weakened or shattered by the market, mobility, and technology, and the centralization of the media and of party politics has taken much of the spirit out of our politics, emphasizing mass and hierarchy, and leading citizens to seek dignity in a private life that seems increasingly confined. Our politics, like our society, is more and more divided into two tiers. The elite levels, especially around the national capital and the media centers, are dense with organized groups and with information about the subtleties of policy and politics…The great majority of Americans, by contrast, are socially distant from power, baffled by its intricacies, anxious about change, and inundated by the welter of information being made available to them. The links that connect citizens to government are thin, mostly top-down, and dominated by money: the parties are increasingly centralized bureaucracies, and “participation” is apt to take the form of donating money in response to direct appeals, voicelessly, without any say in group leadership or policy. As for the dominant news media, they are not seen as a stratum between citizens and centers of power, but as part of the powerhouse, an element of the elite or in its service.
The great majority of Americans know that they depend on the media…the media decide what opinions to attend to and in what ways. Viewers, lacking a voice, can assert their discontents only by changing channels or by turning off the set, and in relation to politics, tuning out has become startlingly common, a silent protest against indignity. It does not help that, eager to cultivate and hold a mass audience, the news media tend to dumb down their political coverage, as indicated by the ever-shrinking sound bite afforded to candidates and leaders. It is probably even worse that the media also pander, playing to our worst impulses. Early and consistently, polls showed that most Americans were convinced that coverage of the Lewinsky affair was doing damage to our institutions, telling pollsters that they wanted it to receive much less attention from the media. However, media leaders knew, of course, that despite this public-regarding judgment, very few Americans, as private individuals, would be able to resist getting caught up in the tacky salacity of the thing.
As a result, we got coverage in agonizing detail: Russell Baker called it “disgusting,” an indication that the media market is dominated by “edge, attitude, and smut.” Moreover, it encouraged millions of Americans to view the media, for all their power, as worthy of contempt. Political societies can be symbolized but not seen, and the most important political controversies turn on words–like justice, equality or liberty–and hence on public speech. A picture makes a strong impression, but one that tends to be superficial. Many see who you appear to be, Machiavelli advised the prince, but not many will recognize who you are.
And often, visual coverage of politics is banal or beside the point. In the internet, a good many observers discerned a trend toward a more decentralized communication and politics, more interactive and hence friendlier to democratic citizenship. However, the Internet, at least so far, is not leading us to the public square. It does enable minorities to find like-minded people, to avoid the sense of being alone, and sometimes this gives strength and assurance to our better angels, although at least as often it gives scope to the dark side. In general, however, the Internet creates groups that lack what Tocqueville called the “power of meeting,” the face-to-face communication that makes claims on our senses, bodies as well as minds. —
Over the past five decades, the American electorate has come to depend more and more on the news media for learning about political candidates and making voting decisions. The growth of all forms of media and the rise of “objectivity” in the press… has made voters more dependent on the news media for campaign information. Today, about seven in 10 voters depend mainly on the news media for information to make choices when they cast their ballot. Voters’ dependence on the news increases the importance of the role that the news media play in American elections. But what do American voters want from election news coverage? And how do voters evaluate the news media’s coverage of presidential elections? In a word, “lukewarm” describes the general feeling of voters about the performance of the news media in covering presidential campaigns, according to national scientific surveys of the American electorate conducted from February through November 1996, as well as a more recent survey, conducted in October 1999, on the current campaign.
The surveys were conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis (CSRA) at the University ofConnecticut. Funding for the 1996 surveys was provided by The Freedom Forum. Why the tepid feelings? American voters are quite consistent in what they say they want from election news–and they are quite clear in saying that what they want is often not what they get. The American electorate is hungry for news and information that allow it to evaluate the substance of presidential candidacies on the basis of issue positions and on the likely consequences of electing a particular candidate to office. News provided outside of these parameters, while perhaps entertaining, is viewed as “nonsense” in the words of our focus group participant. Two types of stories–those that review how candidates stand on issues and those that describe how election outcomes might affect voters–are clearly the kinds of stories in which voters express the highest levels of interest.
The remedies suggested….enhanced coverage of issues and candidates positions, more coverage of the possible impact of election outcomes on public policy and broader coverage of the full field of candidates, not just the front-runners–could improve the quality of news and promote voter learning, which would be healthy for American democracy. At the same time, less coverage of the election as a sporting horse race and less obsession with entertaining stories about candidates personal lives would, according to voters, be an improvement.
In election periods, the polls highlight the role of public opinion in the political process. They also illuminate the importance of public opinion measurements in the media. Fundamentally, and at their best, media polls are a way for public opinion to be reported and perceived, thus fulfilling the eminent 19th-century British visitor James Bryce’s conception of the American press as the “chief organ of public opinion,” and community “weathercock.” However, when employed inappropriately by overzealous reporters and analysts, polls can be used to create an exaggerated sense of precision that misleads more than it informs. Polls routinely bring the public into election campaigns. In an otherwise fragmented and even alienated society, poll reports may be the only means individual members of the public have in situating themselves in the greater society. News reports of poll results tell individuals that they are part of a majority or a minority on various issues.
In campaigns with more than two candidates, especially early in the primary season, information about relativecandidate standing gives voters the information to help them cast a vote that is strategically advantageous. But most importantly, polls take that strategic information about candidate performance away from politicians’ control and places it in the hands of the public. News organizations no longer are forced to rely on the instincts of party leaders or on carefully orchestrated leaks from partisan pollsters for data. Because they are numbers, poll results sometimes create the appearance of a false precision in reporting of candidate support or presidential approval. In fact, some polling organizations flaunt this alleged precision by displaying results to a 10th of a percentage point. Of course, the error due simply to the sampling design is usually at least 30 times greater than the specificity presented. Moreover, there are growing concerns about the ability of survey researchers to reach the majority of households selected in their sample. Some respondents refuse to be interviewed.
Others have become ever more difficult to reach during the short news survey-interviewing period that must be sandwiched between public events. This perception of precision and accuracy leads journalists into making blunders, including attempting to find deep meaning when there probably isn’t any. Newspaper and television reporters often try to attribute a three-point difference in the margin between two candidates to some campaign action. Either the “slipping” candidate has made a mistake, or there has been a successful strategic decision that has brought supporters to the “rising” candidate. Sometimes small movements in the percentages of subgroups that form only a part of the total sample are given the same “explanatory” treatment. Those “differences,” however, are more likely to be caused by sampling error than by campaign events.
In mid-October, a prominent presidential candidate addressed his largest audience. Hundreds of thousands of voters heard his message–but they never got the news that his message contained some distortions, omissions, and half-truths. Those significant matters were either ignored or buried in coverage by the leading news media. Why? It was not because of bias. It was because the candidate’s message was delivered not at a campaign event but in campaign television ads. And when candidates communicate via ads on the tube instead of on the stump, journalists act as if we are stumped about our role and responsibility. Journalists at most major and medium-sized newspapers are proud that they are now at least covering political advertisements at all. They report on them in small-boxed features called “Ad Watch” or something of the sort. But they haven’t figured out that they are still being manipulated by the ad-makers. The “Ad Watch” reports carry the transcript of the 30-second ad, followed by a small section in which a reporter subjectively interprets the ad-maker’s strategy.
Then–in the most valuable section–the reports briefly focus on the factual accuracy of the ad’s claims. Newspapers display these “Ad Watch” boxes on inside pages, back with the snow tire and truss ads. Think about it from a journalist’s viewpoint: when a candidate distorts his record in a huge rally speech, a good reporter fact checks the claims. The resulting news story will surely focus in part on the candidate’s omissions and distortions that present a different and more accurate picture of his record.And that may well be a page one story. Now think about it from the political strategist’s viewpoint: Democratic and Republican strategists expect print journalists will check ads for accuracy but then downplay the results. So, being skilled manipulators, they are willing to take a light hit in a box that is buried back with the truss ads and will run just once if they can pour their unfiltered, exaggerated and distorted message into living rooms where it may be seen by millions, not just once but perhaps 10 times in a campaign.
There is one mistake that all journalists make whether we are covering politics at the White House, state house, or courthouse. Every time we report on money and politics, we fail to tell people the real story about how the system really works because we are using the wrong words to describe what is happening right before our eyes, every day. So no wonder people just shrug when we report that a special interest “contributed” $100,000 to Democrats or Republicans. Because, this special interest really did not “contribute” this money (which my dictionary explains means that it was given as though to a charity). What the special interest representative really did was “invest” $100,000 in the Democrats or Republicans. Big business people (see also: big labor, trial lawyers, et al) “invest” in politics for the same reason that they invest in anything–to reap a profitable return on their “investment.” Use the right word and suddenly everybody understands what is really going on. They will especially understand when we regularly report that the largest agribusiness “investments” in Senate and House races routinely go to the top agriculture committee members, and largest energy special interest “investments” go to the top energy committee members, and so on.
Use the right word and suddenly our next task as journalists becomes clear–and clearly difficult: we need to do a better job of discovering the campaign investors’ motives. We need to ask, Just what profitable return did the investor expect to reap for that campaign investment? A tax subsidy? A regulation waived? A loophole that is difficult for a squinting journalist to see with a naked eye? Whatever the return, this much is clear: the money ultimately comes out of the U.S. Treasury. Clearly, our present system, which we like to say is based on private financing of campaigns, can also be viewed as a form of backdoor public funding–where the taxpayers pay the final tab, no doubt many times over. We journalists have yet to find a way to calculate how many billions of tax dollars it now costs us to finance election campaigns through the back door. At least we can begin using a vocabulary that will finally tell it like it is.
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